His heart was in acting, but he ended up in a pulpit

By Stephanie Hayes, Times Staff Writer
Published March 1, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - He was at a crossroads.

Malcolm Douglas Wilson grew up in Chicago, tap dancing for spending money. He was an only child, raised by a single mother. His heart was in entertaining. But there was a war going on.

He chose the Marines. He served for a year, then married a vocal teacher named Reese Elliot. They had a son named M.D.

* * *

A crossroads.

His wife didn't want him to be an actor. But his passion burned. He couldn't stay in the Midwest, drive a truck or deliver mail.

He left. His wife and son stayed.

In Hollywood, he landed roles on television. He acted in films including War of the Worlds andThe Student Prince. He danced in Singing in the Rain.

In the early 1960s, he went to New York. He worked off-Broadway and in summer stock, and toured with a production of The Sound of Music, playing Franz the butler.

* * *

A crossroads.

He wanted a change. He was looking for a missing piece.

At church, he met a guest speaker - Rev. LeRoy Zemke. They started a relationship that lasted 43 years.

"It was rich, very deep, very fulfilling," Zemke said. "He was all you could want in a partner."

He moved to St. Petersburg and began working at Zemke's interfaith, metaphysical church, Temple of the Living God. He was historian. He rigged lighting. He directed Christmas performances.

In 1980, he was ordained - he was now the Rev. Wilson, assistant pastor. From the start, the men were open with the congregation about their relationship.

Zemke watched his partner evolve from hot-tempered to compassionate and patient. But his quirks remained. His shirts hung the same direction. He showed up an hour early everywhere. If Zemke told a joke, his partner would interrupt - "You're forgetting the third part. It's not going to make sense."

The Rev. Wilson never divorced his wife, said Zemke, 69. They remained best friends. She died in the 1970s. Later, the Rev. Wilson reunited with his son and built a relationship.

* * *

A crossroads.

The diagnosis was cancer. The Rev. Wilson could take painful treatments or enjoy what time was left. Doctors advised the latter. He agreed.

The painkillers made his head cloudy, but he reflected. He had done all he could. He had tried to be a good example and make a difference. He was ready.

At the end, Zemke said, the Rev. Wilson became clear. His mind was sharp and alive, just like when they first met. On Sunday, he died. He was 84.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8557.


The Rev. Malcolm Douglas Wilson

Born: March 11, 1923.

Died: Feb. 24, 2008.

Survivors: partner, the Rev. LeRoy Zemke; son and daughter-in-law, M.D. and Barbara Wilson.

Services: 11 a.m. March 22, Temple of the Living God, 1950 2nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.